Sport Football Best of enemies: Aussie goalkeeping hopefuls face off
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Best of enemies: Aussie goalkeeping hopefuls face off

Mitchell Langerak
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In November, Stoke City played out a 1-1 draw with Southampton in the English Premier League. The Potters’ scorer was Asmir Begovic; an unlikely one given – as a goalkeeper – the closest he usually gets to the opponents’ penalty area is around 70 metres away.

The rare strike, from a goal-kick that the wind took over Saints counterpart Artur Boruc, was not celebrated by Begovic. Illustrating the famed ‘Goalkeepers Union’ remains alive and well, Begovic denied himself any revelry “out of respect” for Boruc.

Anyone who is not a goalkeeper himself might find Begovic’s act curious.

Similarly curious is that such a tight-knit community as the ‘Goalkeepers Union’ was, in essence, borne out of one of sport’s greatest rivalries. After all, few jobs constantly pit two people working so closely together against each other for one role.

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Langerak training with Borussia Dortmund. Photo: AFP

It is the situation Australian goalkeepers Mitch Langerak and Mat Ryan face as they work towards the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The duo found themselves elevated into No.1 contention after the shock retirement of stalwart Mark Schwarzer. His retirement simultaneously robs the Socceroos of their most enduring talisman, the coolest of heads at the back and the man with an uncanny knack of pulling his team back from the yawning jaws of defeat.

Filling that void will be one thing. Getting the opportunity to do so is another.

“We all understand the situation, and I don’t just speak of myself and Matty – there’s many other goalkeepers in the picture, and that’s no secret,” Borussia Dortmund shot-stopper Langerak told The New Daily.

“Between all of us, we all understand the situation. We all understand only one person will play, but that’s not going to stop us taking the foot off the pedal or anything.”

He and Club Brugge No.1 Ryan appear to have the inside running for the top job under new coach Ange Postecoglou, having been the only two goalkeepers called up for November’s friendly against Costa Rica.

Challenges will come from the likes of Adam Federici (Reading) and Eugene Galekovic (Adelaide United), but the rivalry between 25-year-old Langerak and Ryan, 21, has the making of a lasting one for the Socceroos.

It bodes well; behind many a great international goalkeeper, there has been a worthy challenger. Think Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann for Germany, even if the spirit of their rivalry was seldom one the ‘Goalkeepers’ Union’ would endorse. Or take Spain, where the nation’s golden generation has distracted attentions from an equally splendid generation of goalkeepers, led by national team captain Iker Casillas and featuring supporting roles from Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes.  The latter, Barcelona’s long-time No.1, can feel especially unlucky, criminally possessing just 19 caps – eight of which came in 2013.

Langerak describes being in camp ahead of the Costa Rica match without Schwarzer as “different”, with Ryan going a step further: “It was a bit surreal.”

Both speak of the 109-times capped Schwarzer in awed tones, but the cut-throat nature of their chosen profession leaves little room for sentimentality.

“(Mitch and I would) like to think that we’d both be involved in the national set-up now that we’ve been involved regularly for at least a couple of years now,” Ryan said. “It’d be great if we could be in the national team for years to come, getting the best out of one another and doing our best for our country.”

It bodes well; behind many a great international goalkeeper, there has been a worthy challenger.

Langerak and Ryan possess markedly different styles. The former talks up the influence of former West Ham and Reading shot-stopper and now Melbourne Victory goalkeeping coach Steve Mautone, and uses his 191cm frame well to command his area. Ryan, at 184cm, is a protégé of South American-influenced Central Coast Mariners’ coach John Crawley, placing great importance on his ability to play out from the back.

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Mat Ryan in Socceroos action against Costa Rica Photo: Getty

Even their club situations differ; Langerak is a patient and highly rated understudy to established first-choice German international Roman Weidenfeller at Dortmund, while Ryan took little time making the No.1 spot at Belgian outfit Club Brugge his own after moving in May 2013.

Like he does with the rest of his Socceroos teammates, Ryan follows the club progress of Langerak from afar. “We both realise that there is no benefit from not being friendly towards one another,” Ryan said.

“Just because of that reason, we maintain a professional relationship and we push each other on the pitch to get the best out of each other, and off it we remain friends.”

Langerak describes the rivalry with Ryan as “healthy”, adding there is “no bad blood or anything like that”.

“You’ve got to have each other’s backs, because at the end of the day we’re sort of very much on our own at the back there,” Langerak said.

“You shouldn’t … have problems with someone just because you both play in the same position.

“You’re working with each other flat out every day … I think it doesn’t make sense and it’s a little bit counterproductive if you don’t help each other out, you don’t work with each other.

“The ‘keepers union is a good thing,” Langerak added. “It helps to know you’ve got the support of the other ‘keepers.”

The camaraderie is clear, despite that burning ambition to be the Socceroos’ No.1. Anything else, of course, would be against union rules.

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